When backers – both politicians and voters – of proposed change to the Michigan Constitution in 1908 passed an addition to our governing document to allow for the right of referendum on legislative issues, I doubt anyone thought at the time about the political chicanery that it would spawn decades later. But that is exactly what has taken place with increasing frequency in the halls of the Michigan House and Senate.
No doubt supporters in 1908 were overjoyed that the right of referendum was added to the constitution. The change allowed for citizens to gather signatures on petitions to place laws on the ballot for voters to decide whether to overturn legislative action by state lawmakers. The right to referendum has to be invoked within 90 days following adjournment of the legislative session in which the law was passed. A referendum could be used to challenge a law in its entirety or just a portion of the legislation. The only exception was that spending (i.e. appropriation) bills were exempt from referendum, based on the logic that the state had to be able to conduct business without having its finances or credit put in jeopardy by referendum at a later date.
Sounds logical, that is until the power politics of Lansing years ago led to the first abuses of this constitutional provision. Basically the dominant political party, then as now, decided to block public participation in the legislative process by attaching appropriation clauses to controversial legislation as it snakes it way through the House and Senate, effectively preventing anyone from placing a challenge to a possible questionable law on the ballot for voter determination.
This issue has been on my radar for a number of years as the trickery of tying appropriation amendments to controversial bills appears to be getting used with increasing regularity. Lansing lawmakers have used this questionable tactic to block public challenges on the ballot to such items as the state’s item pricing law, income tax on pensions, the right to work law, the latest emergency manager law, no fault insurance law changes, wolf hunting and the recent ban on straight party voting in Michigan, which like the emergency manager law had already been successfully overturned at the ballot. No matter to those intent on pushing through their own warped agenda – just reintroduce the same law and add some spending language and the voter is effectively left out of the process. The public be dammed.
In just the last few weeks this deceptive legislative maneuver was used once again, this time to extend the ongoing GOP effort at voter suppression when the Michigan House passed a bill toughening the voter identification law in the state. Yes, I call it voter suppression even though party faithful like to frame it as one more step in controlling voter fraud in the state, although most municipal clerks readily admit that instances of such are almost non-existent.
At the risk of looking like I am throwing my lot in with the Democrats in the House (I am an Independent), the constant push by Republicans to “save” the election process in Michigan has become a tired refrain when all election-related bills have more of an impact on those from lower economic groups and minorities living in urban areas, often times considered Democrat when it comes to voting.
Under the latest election “improvement” – which the Senate tabled before session adjournment, effectively killing the proposal for now – a voter who shows at the polls without acceptable voter ID can sign an affidavit affirming his or her identity but then must return to the local municipal clerk’s office within 10 days or their vote will not be counted.
With current election law, someone without picture ID can sign an affidavit and proceed to vote. A total of just over 18,000 registered voters in Michigan cast ballots in this manner for the 2016 November general election.
Even a spokesperson for Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, a native of Oakland County, has been quoted as saying her office was not aware of any fraud related to the current affidavit option at the polls. But no matter. Emboldened by control of both legislative chambers and the office of governor, and the comfort of both the lame duck session and term-limited lawmakers who won’t return in January, Michigan Republicans were not going to miss an opportunity to tighten the screws on those who historically have been less inclined to pull the GOP lever in the voting booth.
Interestingly, although the voter ID bill passed along party lines, 57-50 in the House vote, five Republicans (none from Oakland County) voted against this latest GOP power grab. As one Republican lawmaker from the Upper Peninsula related, in his part of the state, local clerks often function part-time and don’t keep regular office hours and a voter who has to sign an affidavit and then return within 10 days may not be able to reach a clerk when available, and then for some, it could be a 100-mile round trip to show ID after an election. If that is not voter suppression, I don’t know what is.
But GOP House members were not taking any chances. They attached an $11 million appropriation to the bill for safe measure. Supposedly $8 million will be used for “election modernization,” $2 million to provide free birth certificates and another $1 million for a free state ID program.
Of course, that all assumes that this “election improvement” money will actually be used for what the bill designates, which at least one study in past years indicates is not the case with a lot of the appropriation amendments that have been designed to make laws referendum proof. Surprise, surprise.
The solution to all of these shenanigans is simple. We need a change to the Michigan Constitution. Let appropriations be part of the normal budgeting process and review, and provide a safe haven for this part of the government process. Let questionable or controversial legislation – all of it – be subject to referendum.
But don’t hold your breath.
A Royal Oak-based group attempted to gather signatures starting in 2014 to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot but came nowhere near gathering the over 300,000 signatures needed at the time, no doubt due to lack of funding and because the issue lacks the sexiness of other issues facing a beleaguered voting population. And then two Democrats – Michigan Senator Curtis Hertel, Jr. and Royal Oak House member Jim Townsend – introduced a resolution to put the constitutional amendment on the ballot for 2016 but it went nowhere.
No one can claim to be shocked. Why would anyone want to allow voters the chance to eliminate the opportunity for lawmakers to twist the system to their own advantage when it comes to dominating their constituent base?